Culture Eats Strategy For Breakfast – Part 2

Editor’s note: Bill Aulet is the managing director of the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship and a senior lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management. He is the author of the recently released book, Disciplined Entrepreneurship: 24 Steps to a Successful Startup

resourceBeing from New York, I am inherently skeptical about worlds of happiness and cohesion. But it all made sense when our host, VP of marketing, former MIT student, and single-digit-number employee Tamara Mendelsohn, came striding in the room, beaming with pride and energy, to discuss how Eventbrite went from just a few employees to hundreds and became a model of success for others in Northern California.

There was a lot of technical advice on primary market research and marketing techniques to drive market traction, but by far the most interesting part was about how the founders and the leaders of the company had consciously “engineered the company’s culture.” At first, she explained, the primary focus was testing for humility during the hiring process, and they had a checklist to enforce their “no assholes” rule. But they quickly realized they needed to do more.

As the company grew, they wanted to keep the same GSD (Get Stuff Done) attitude across the company and not let their company turn into “just another company.” This was tricky, but because the founders and employees were deeply committed to this attitude, they developed the following solution: “You can’t complain here,” Tamara explained. “If you see something wrong, you must fix it. We say it is a great opportunity to come up with a solution, and this is where many of our best programs have come from. Anything can be changed. We aren’t victim to anyone. We own the culture.”

It is no accident that such a strong culture has produced such a successful company. Event planners have enough to worry about without their ticket-sales software having problems – it needs to just work. When we have used the tool for our center’s events, we have found both a good feature set but also a super-responsive technical support team that has us covered when we screw up or don’t understand certain features. When Tamara explained Eventbrite’s culture to us, it made sense to me why their support team was so on point.

As we talk about in our classes (and credit to Peter Drucker who had the original quote which we have modified), “culture eats strategy for breakfast, technology for lunch, and products for dinner, and soon thereafter everything else too.” Why? Because company culture, a concept pioneered by Edgar Schein, is the operationalizing of an organization’s values. Culture guides employee decisions about both technical business decisions and how they interact with others. Good culture creates an internal coherence in actions taken by a very diverse group of employees.

Some may believe that culture cannot be “engineered,” and that it just happens. It is true that culture happens whether you want it to or not. It is the DNA of the company and is in large part created by the founders – not by their words so much as their actions. So the very decision to not try to create a corporate culture, or worse, to not have company values, is in fact your choice of what culture will prevail – and not for the better.

Should this have been a surprise to me? No, because for over a decade in the 1980s and early 1990s, I worked for IBM when it was the most respected, profitable and rapidly growing company in the world. From day one of training (training which lasted often for two years), the company made clear the importance of their trio of core values: respect for the individual, superlative customer service, and the pursuit of excellence in all tasks. It was this fervent adherence to these core values – through the training, the monthly communications, the performance-appraisal system, the role models, and ultimately every decision we made –that made us great.

So count me among the completely converted. When I talk to entrepreneurs now, before I get too carried away with the idea, I want to probe them about their vision, mission and values. Ideas are cheap – and tasty too. Culture eats them even before its pre-breakfast morning run.